The History of South Church
By Jonathan Dean-Lee
From its origins in the Great Awakening to its mission in the modern world, South Church has had a vivid and meaningful history.
South Church had its beginnings as a protest against the established church of the Connecticut Colony and in reaction to the secularization of religion at that time.
In 1747, Ebenezer Frothingham, a staunch Separatist of the Great Awakening, gathered a congregation in Wethersfield. In 1753, after being in and out of jail for preaching where and when he was not permitted, Frothingham brought his congregation to Middletown in pursuit of religious tolerance. The congregation first met in Frothingham's house but later erected its first Meeting House. Both Frothingham's house and the first Meeting House still stand on Mill Street.
In 1818, the protests of the Separatists were finally recognized in a revised Connecticut Constitution, which states, "No person shall be compelled to join or support, nor by law be classed with any congregation, church, or religious association." Members of South Church were now free to pursue the worship of God as they saw fit.
That worship included a number of innovations. For example, South Church organized the first Sunday School in Middletown, in 1828. In that same year, the church engaged its first paid leader of singing, initiating a tradition of fine music that characterizes the church even in modern times. In addition, the faith of some church members led them to be active in the social and political movements of the times, such as the temperance movement of the 1830s and the anti-slavery movement of the 1830s and 1840s.
In 1830, South Church moved to the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets and currently worships in its second building on that site. The present building was constructed in 1867 after the demolition of the previous structure. The bell was hoisted into the tower by oxen in 1884. Over the years a number of changes have been made in the building. The latest renovations, completed in 1985, included the construction of classrooms and meeting areas on the lower level, expansion of the nursery, complete painting of the inside of the sanctuary, carpeting of the sanctuary floor, and modernization of staff offices. South Church now has a beautiful setting in which to gather for worship.
Moving into modern times, South Church has kept its commitment to the worship of God and to an active mission in the wider world. In 1969, despite pressures of limited space and growing population, South Church made the decision to remain a downtown church, acknowledging its role of outreach to the Middletown community. For example, in 1973, South Church members contributed to the building fund of Shiloh Baptist Church, a local black church. In 1974, the church received a citation for 100 years of community service to Connecticut Valley Hospital, a state psychiatric facility located in Middletown.
South Church also reaches out to the world beyond Middletown both through its worldwide mission with the United Church of Christ and through individual efforts. In the 1980s there was a caring relationship with a church in Saavedra, Boliva. Members of South Church visited Saavedra delivering financial support, Bible stories in Spanish for children, medical supplies, and even ambulance tires to the residents of that poverty-stricken area.
South Church is committed to reaching out to the Middletown community in a variety of ways. One example is the repair and restoration of the steeple in 1991, which was a joint church and community effort.
In addition to changes in the methods of mission and outreach, South Church has undergone some organizational changes. Although born in a Separatist tradition, South Church, as of 1965, is a fully affiliated member of the United Church of Christ, a denomination with more than one and a half million members. The UCC was formed by merging four traditions: Congregational, Christian, Evangelical, and Reformed. However, the UCC shares a belief in both covenant and congregational freedom. South Church's roots, firmly planted in that freedom, are bringing forth fruit which insures that South Church will continue the worship of God in ways that will affect not only church members but the wider world as well.
In June 2008, we removed all the pews from the Sanctuary. A contractor set up staging so workers could repair plaster on the ceiling and the walls. The Sanctuary was painted in bright and inspiring colors. All woodwork was cleaned and polished. After three months of work, the pews, cleaned and polished, were re-installed. We held a re-dedication service in September.
If you have not been in South Churh in a while, come some Sunday morning at 10:00, or to some event. It is our prayer that you will be blessed and inspired as we are.